SCIENCE
11/12/2015 12:11 pm ET

Giant New Telescopes To Unlock Science's Greatest Mysteries

The world's largest mega scopes could find life outside our solar system.

Science is about to enter a new age of cosmic discovery -- one with massive telescopes capable of looking back to the very beginning of time and, perhaps, answering humanity's deepest question: "Are we alone in the universe?"

On Wednesday, a team of international partners broke ground on the Giant Magellan Telescope, or GMT, on a remote mountaintop in the Chilean Andes. 

When this mega scope begins operations in 2021, it will be the world’s largest. And when it reaches full strength three years later, its 25-meter primary mirror will produce images 10 times sharper than those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope would be 20 million times more sensitive than the human eye, Wendy Freedman, chairwoman of the GMT Organization Board of Directors, said in TED Talk.  "And it may, for the first time ever, be capable of finding life on planets outside of our solar system," she said. "It's going to allow us to look back at the first light in the universe, literally the dawn of the cosmos -- the cosmic dawn."

To the delight of space buffs, the Giant Magellan won't remain the world's largest for long. 

In Hawaii, the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, is scheduled to be operational by 2024. And the significantly larger 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope is expected to be introduced in Chile that same year.

Roy Gal, an associate astronomer at the Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, said it's an exciting time for his field.

Larger telescopes mean more power and often, new discoveries. And with telescopes pushing 30 meters in diameter, the capability of detecting biological signatures of life on other planets ​grows​, Gal said.

"You can see the light at the end of the tunnel for being able to answer some of these questions," he told The Huffington Post.

TMT project associate director Michael Bolte, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told HuffPost that the universe is "unimaginably vast," but he has no doubt that TMT and other large telescopes will allow astronomers to break into a new realm of discovery and study objects never seen before. 

"I think we're going to move into this next golden age of astronomy, to tell you the truth," he said.

When it comes to exploring the cosmos and answering humanity's toughest questions, bigger is better.

Below, check out the four monster telescopes that promise to reshape astronomy over the next decade. 

  • NASA's James Webb Space Telescope
    The <a href="http://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html">James Webb Space Telescope</a> is&nbsp;a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-me
    NASA/Chris Gunn
    The James Webb Space Telescope is a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror and the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. 

    It will be launched from French Guiana in October of 2018 and serve as NASA's premier observatory for the next decade. It will study every phase in the history of our universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.
  • Giant Magellan Telescope -- Chile
    The <a href="http://www.gmto.org/overview/" target="_blank">Giant Magellan Telescope</a>&nbsp;is being constructed in the Las
    Courtesy of Giant Magellan Telescope Organization
    The Giant Magellan Telescope is being constructed in the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and promises to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe. 

    The GMT aims to discover Earth-like planets around nearby stars and the tiny distortions that black holes cause in the light from distant stars and galaxies. It will reveal the faintest objects ever seen in space, including distant and ancient galaxies, the light from which has been traveling to Earth since shortly after the Big Bang -- 13.8 billion years ago.

    It is expected to begin operations in 2021.
  • Thirty Meter Telescope -- Hawaii
    When complete, the <a href="http://www.tmt.org/">Thirty Meter Telescope</a>&nbsp;will become&nbsp;the most advanced and power
    Courtesy TMT International Observatory
    When complete, the Thirty Meter Telescope will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth.

    It will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way, neighboring galaxies and galaxies that formed​ at the very edge of the observable ​universe​ near the beginning of time.

    Ongoing protests have stalled construction of the $1.4 billion project for several months, but it is expected to resume this month.
  • European Extremely Large Telescope -- Chile
    The <a href="https://www.eso.org/sci/facilities/eelt/">European Extremely Large Telescope</a>&nbsp;will be the largest optica
    Courtesy of European Southern Observatory
    The European Extremely Large Telescope will be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world and will gather 13 times more light than the largest optical telescopes existing today. It will be able to correct for the atmospheric distortions from the start, providing images 16 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

    The E-ELT has a 39-meter main mirror and is planned to start operations in 2024.
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